People working in primary mental health care in rural and remote locations now have greater opportunities for peer support and professional development through online technology.
The Mental Health Professionals Network (MHPN) has established and now supports 450 interdisciplinary community mental health networks across Australia.
These locally driven networks aim to improve consumer outcomes by promoting collaborative practice amongst clinicians.
While networks predominantly meet face to face, this can exclude clinicians who are most isolated and would value increased interaction with other clinicians. MHPN aims to expand the reach of networks to Australia’s more remote clinicians with the use of online technology such as videoconferencing and webconferencing platforms.
Online technology reduces professional isolation
MHPN CEO, Chris Gibbs explains, ’Online technology provides the vehicle for remote clinicians to feel connected to others working in mental health care, reduce their professional isolation and have greater access to professional development alongside their peers.’
Over 40 percent of MHPN networks are located in regional, rural and remote locations. MHPN network meetings differ to online case conferencing in that they are designed to enhance mental health referral networks, broaden knowledge of local service providers and offer a place to share the skills and knowledge base of different disciplines.
Meetings regularly feature guest speakers with expertise in a particular clinical area of mental health. Many rural networks are highly functioning and already have collaborative models in place. However having access to expert speakers or linking in clinicians working in relative isolation ultimately leads to more informed treatment or referral options for the consumer.
Numerous benefits of online meetings
The benefit of involving clinicians working in Australia’s most isolated communities cannot be overstated.
“Not only does it provide remote clinicians with new information that can enhance treatment, it provides them with a network of people to turn to when they come up against difficult cases,” said Chris.
There are other distinct advantages.
It saves time, travel and accommodation costs for people where workforce shortages mean time away from clients has a bigger impact than in the city. Being able to hear from clinical experts and not have to take a couple of days away from work is an enormous advantage.
Virtual meetings tried and tested
Townsville GP and medical educator, Dr Michael Murray, was recently involved in successfully trialing a north Queensland virtual network meeting for clinicians either at home or in their own clinical settings.
It linked a selection of GPs, social workers, occupational therapists and psychologists from as far afield as Ingham, Townsville, Longreach and Mt Isa. Physically convening such a meeting over those distances and with such a diversity of disciplines would be almost impossible.
“Participants discussed emergency mental health in a remote setting. They embraced the forum and are enthusiastic about meeting online monthly,” Dr Murray said.
Psychiatrist guest speakers a reality for rural networks
Across the other side of the country in the north of Western Australia, the MHPN Newman network is also using videoconferencing to link its members.
The group’s coordinator, Stephen Arthur, is a clinical nurse specialist in adult mental health at Pilbara Mental Health & Disability Service (MHDS), and is passionate about connecting people and services in the mental health field.
With the help of MHPN, he organised for Dr Roland Main, psychiatrist at Pilbara MHDS, to talk on the topic ‘What services do we have and how can we access them?’ via video link to 26 network members in Newman, Tom Price and Paraburdoo. Such opportunities are relatively easy to establish with the advances in technology.
Special interest networks involve urban and rural clinicians
For MHPN members, interest in online technologies has also spread to some of the special interest networks which are primarily metropolitan-based. Rural and regional clinicians are seeking ways to use online technology as a substitute to travel so they can participate in these specialised networks.
This is not to assume that all remote areas have the broadband necessary to meet the demand for this kind of interaction. Despite minor challenges and differences in broadband availability between locations, MHPN has laid down the groundwork to smooth the way for online network meetings and will continue to explore and offer technology for its members.
It is clear that the evolution of virtual technology is going to play a major part in the future of MHPN networks.